How does your mood change across your menstrual cycle?

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Jennis physiologist Dr Emma Ross gives us the inside scoop on how our emotional ups and downs could be triggered by our hormonal ones...

Reviewed by: Dr Emma Ross

Are you super-confident at one point in your menstrual cycle, then full of anxiety the next? Then it could be down to the fluctuations of your menstrual-cycle hormones, as Jennis Physiologist, Dr Emma Ross , explains.

“Across a single menstrual cycle, oestrogen and progesterone fluctuate quite a lot, so it’s no surprise that there’s a knock-on effect in terms of how you feel,” says Dr Emma.

“Whether it’s bad moods, anxiety, cramps or feelings of positivity, confidence and power, our hormones have a lot to answer for and it’s fascinating when you connect the dots between the two.”

Here, we take a whistle-stop tour of an average menstrual month to find out more...

The Period Phase

What’s happening hormonally? “When you’re on your period, both the hormones of your cycle are low, so your hormones aren’t actually doing very much. 

“What is having an effect, however, are chemicals called prostaglandins, which can cause cramping, pain, inflammation and unpleasant gastro symptoms like diarrhoea and nausea.”

How does this make you feel? Some women sail through their periods and feel relieved and energised when they’re on their bleed, but 84% of us experience abdominal cramps and pain – most likely because of those prostaglandins.

Other frequently reported symptoms are headaches, heavy legs and fatigue which can be as a result of dehydration or low iron levels.

If you only do one thing: Whether it’s a light yoga session, LISS, walk or run, we know that moving during your period can help to lift your mood, even if you feel pain or you are tired.

When you exercise your body increases levels of endorphins (pronounced: en-dor-fins) – the feel-good hormone. These lift your mood, help you feel more positive, reduce anxiety and make you feel more in control. These are also known as nature’s pain killer.

The Follicular Phase

What’s happening hormonally? During this phase, your oestrogen levels go from zero to hero, rising significantly as you prepare for ovulation,” says Emma, “Around the time of ovulation, you also get a teeny spike of testosterone. It’s very small, but because women don’t have much testosterone, you can often notice its presence.” 

How does this make you feel? “High oestrogen levels make you feel more motivated, social, outgoing and confident, and you may feel more able to tackle challenging problems. When it comes to your fitness , you might feel more motivated to train, with some women more likely to push their fitness, go for a PB and tag on extra sets and reps.”

The combination of emotions should give you a real spring in your step – and that’s scientifically proven, too. According to various studies, the way we walk actually changes and we get a definite swagger on during our Follicular phase too.

If you only do one thing: Tap into your extra energy and push your fitness – especially as you approach the end of this phase. Whether that’s pushing for a PB on your next run, adding in some extra sets or reps or lifting heavier, this is the time to push for gains and feel the benefits.

Whether it’s bad moods, anxiety and cramps or feelings of positivity, confidence and power, our hormones have a lot to answer for and it’s fascinating when you connect the dots between the two.

The Luteal Phase

What’s happening hormonally? The big hormone player at this point in your cycle is the ever-lovely progesterone, which is known for its calming, anti anxiety effect. As progesterone rises to its peak across this phase, oestrogen is also making an appearance, albeit at lower levels than in the first half of the cycle.

How does this make you feel? One of the most widely reported effects of progesterone is that it has a calming effect, reducing anxiety and helping some women feel more chilled and more relaxed – and for many women, this phase is characterised by a change of intensity.

When it comes to your fitness, you may find that your drive to go hard may have waned (along with your motivation for HIIT), but your ability to go for longer runs, rides, swims or LISS sessions can take over. 

In terms of digestion, progesterone might have a couple of ‘interesting side effects, changing pace and slowing your digestion down. This can mean you experience constipation or bloating during this phase .

To help combat these symptoms, stay well hydrated; eat little and often and chew your food well (10 to 20 chews per mouthful). When it comes to what to eat, don’t overload on fruit or fruit smoothies and reduce salty or processed foods.”

Another effect of progesterone is that it can make the body more sensitive to changes in blood sugar, which can lead to food cravings or mood swings. To help keep blood sugar stable, eat regularly (at least every 3 hours) and opt for brown, starchy carbs, lean meats and starchy veg – such as sweet potatoes and squashes – for your meals.

If you only do one thing: Pay attention to what you are eating and drinking, reduce salty and processed foods and snack frequently on the right style of starches.

The Pre-menstrual Phase

What’s happening hormonally? Remember how levels of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone rose during the previous phases? Well, during the Pre-menstrual Phase it’s completely different, with a massive drop-off of both oestrogen and progesterone.

How does this make you feel? Oestrogen affects serotonin (the happy hormone) and progesterone (which has an anti-anxiety effect in the brain), so when you take those two powerhouses away, it’s no wonder that mood swings, sore boobs, fatigue, anxiety and bloating can kick in. The best way to describe it is like a withdrawal from caffeine. There are going to be side effects.

If you do experience negative symptoms, the good news is that there are things you can do. In a recent study carried out on women aged 18-25 over an eight-week period, those who exercised regularly noticed a significant reduction in PMS symptoms. In fact, the results were so impressive that exercise can now be used as a treatment for PMS.

Importantly, there’s no pressure to go hard and max out on those burpees. A review of 17 studies that looked at the impact of exercise on PMS proved that it’s not the type of exercise but the regularity that can be beneficial for both physical and psychological symptoms. 

If you only do one thing: “The big takeaway from all the work I have done over the years is that moving during your pre-menstrual phase can help, and even if you feel bloated or tired, a small amount of activity will make you feel better both physically and emotionally.

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Read more about Dr Emma Ross

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